Tips & Advice

From Dr. Liz Herself

October 16, 2015
How to Shed Belly Fat, Part 2: Get Enough Sleep
Woman Sleeping to Combat Belly Fat

Last week we talked about how high cortisol causes belly fat to start attaching itself to your body at midlife.

You know, that body of yours that used to respond to what “everybody knows” is the “right” way to manage your weight – exercise more and eat less.

It’s just that now those same things don’t work anymore.

So frustrating!

Major Weight Loss Mistake

One of what I call the “Top 3 Women’s Weight Loss Mistakes” is (drum-roll please): not enough sleep.

In fact, I think in our go-go-go world, connected 24/7, we are at a crisis point regarding sleep.

Sleep deprivation makes us wake up with higher amounts of the stress hormone cortisol (yes, this hormone again!), which fuels appetite and increases our cravings, particularly for sugary and carb-laden treats, even when we have eaten enough.

Also, if your blood sugar levels are on a rollercoaster all day, you can bet your cortisol is as well. You can reduce the stress associated with blood sugar imbalance by eating a high protein breakfast within one hour of getting up and avoiding more than a 3-4 hour gap between meals or snacks.

Why You Have to Sleep to Lose Weight

Not only does poor sleep pack on pounds, good sleep actually helps you to lose weight by influencing the hormones that control your appetite and increase your metabolism.

A 2004 study at the University of Chicago was the first to show sleep as a major regulator of appetite-controlling hormones – it boosts leptin, the hormone that tells you to put down the fork.

In the same year, researchers at the Stanford School of Medicine found that subjects who had only five hours of sleep per night experienced an increase in their BMI, regardless of diet and exercise.

Also, while we sleep our brains produce growth hormone. When we are young and growing, this hormone makes our bones grow bigger. For adults, this is a “repair hormone”, and steadily declining levels are part of what makes it harder to manage our weight.

Sleep Hygiene

In addition to eating the right things, you have to sleep enough and at the right times. Ideally, you need to sleep at least 7.5 to 9 hours per night. I think 7 hours of sleep is a minimum for most people in modern environments.

“Sleep hygiene” is the phrase a lot of doctors use to describe our behaviors around sleep.

Another way I say this to my patients is, “This is the part I can’t help you with – the part where you actually go to sleep.”

Alcohol may seem to help you relax, because as the blood alcohol level rises, it is a central nervous system depressant. The problem is that as the level drops later during the night, it is a central nervous system stimulant. Not drinking alcohol near bedtime is Rule #1 if you have sleep problems. (I’ll talk about how alcohol holds up weight loss another time.)

Many of us need time to unwind before we can go to sleep, but many women work on getting all sorts of things done after putting kids to bed, for example. Computer work stimulates the brain, the opposite of what we want before going to sleep.

Sleep Supplements

Sleep is an area where I really prefer to have people use natural supplements rather than pharmaceutical medications. Prescription sleeping pills might be useful in the short term, but they do not give actual real sleep, with actual real sleep brain wave patterns. They are also all addicting over time. (Using them occasionally, such as to re-set after jet lag, is generally OK.)

Melatonin is the natural hormone the brain releases to help us fall and stay asleep. It is short-acting, non-addicting, and easily available over-the-counter. People respond to different doses, some need high doses while other actually get a better sleep effect from a very low dose.

If you have tried melatonin before and it did not work, try a higher OR a lower dose, or a better quality supplement – I have often had patients get good results with any of these options.

Melatonin release is naturally shut off in the brain by light entering our eyes, so keeping your bedroom as dark as possible (or using an eye-mask) is also good sleep hygiene. Cool temperatures also promote better sleep.

If I see a patient having sleep problems, I always address this first. It’s critical to your health.

People can go for weeks without food, but not more than a few days without sleep, without suffering major consequences. Messing up your weight loss efforts is just the start.

The bottom line is: protect your sleep!

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